Wednesday 14 April 2010

La Valle dei Templi

Souvenirs from Sicily, Part VI

We wake up in our huge matrimonial bed under the mournful eyes of Jesus, who looks down on us from the pastel background of his painting, exposing his bleeding heart for all the sinful world to see.

Last night, I was too tired to object, but on this beautiful sunlit October morning in 1987 in the small Sicilian harbour town of Porto Empedocle I feel stronger and more my usual self, so I tell Brigitte of my intention to either put the picture down from its nail on the wall or turn it over so that I do not have to look at it again tonight.
The Catholic fascination for blood-stained images has always puzzled me; I remember how, when I was little, our parents would often take me and my sister on a day trip to some town or other in our area, where we would look at museums, palaces and churches, and how the statues and images of martyrs used to spook me in a way that I had nightmares - people being tied to a tree and pierced by numerous arrows, burnt on something that looked like a grill, have their limbs chopped off and all kinds of cruelties (un)imaginable.

But I digress, so let's return to Porto Empedocle - or, rather, to Agrigento and the valley of the temples (valle dei templi), because this is where we want to go today.

Over breakfast (which in Sicily is no big affair; just some coffee in a lot of milk - caffè latte - and, if you're lucky, a croissant-like thingy or some biscuits called merendina) Brigitte asks Nunzia how we best get to Agrigento.

There is a bus between the two towns, but apparently, there are no proper bus stops or a fixed time table for it; you just go out on the street, hope and wait for the bus, and when it turns up, you raise your arm and signal for it to stop. If the driver sees you and feels like stopping for you, he will do so.
Nunzia has no doubts the driver will stop for two such exotic looking girls like us, but all of a sudden, Brigitte feels a bit shy at the prospect of waving for a bus to stop, and so one of the boys is sent out with us, and this time, Anna's younger sister who had to stay home last night when we went for the passeggio, is allowed to join us, too.
She very much clings to Brigitte's arm and keeps asking her many questions in a rather squeaky voice, starting each one with "Brigidaaa?", the sound of which Brigitte is quickly beginning to hate, but she does not have the heart to tell the girl to please call her Brigitte and not Brigida.
Anyway, after a short while the bus does indeed appear amidst a cloud of light brown dust, and is duly waved to a halt right in front of us.
The two children wait until we are safely on and the door closes behind us, and wave frantically with huge smiles until we round a corner and are out of sight.

The distance between Porto Empedocle and Agrigento is less than 8 km (no, I do not remember that - I've looked it up; thanks to google maps!), so it does not take the bus very long to reach our destination for the day.
To the valle dei templi, where the famous temple ruins are, it is another 5 or 6 km, and we have to take a different bus to get there.

That bus is going from the central bus station, and while we are waiting (this time, there are proper bus stops and time tables), a group of young men approaches.
Whether they are actually set for travelling somewhere or just hang out at the station is unclear; what is clear, though, is their interest in us, the voluptous girl with the blond curly hair and the milky skin and her tall friend with the long red ponytail.
To their delight, they do not need to rely on their limited knowledge of very badly pronounced English, but Brigitte understands and speaks their language.
It seems that, before they came close enough for us to listen, they have already agreed on who is going to try and chat up Brigitte and who is going to focus on me, because they instantly divide their attention equally between the two of us. Brigitte's manner is very relaxed while she is talking to them, and so I am not worried. I smile politely at my "admirers", and Brigitte tells me that this one has just asked me whether I want to be his fidanzata (literally, this means fiancée, but it is largely simply used to describe a girlfriend, not necessarily one that is intended as future wife). When I point out the obvious, i.e. that I do not know him at all and therefore certainly won't be his fidanzata, he has Brigitte tell me from him that he promises me if I get to know him, I will love him.
So much self-confidence makes me laugh, and we all share an amicable round of laughter.
Just like we do not take these boys seriously, they are not serious - and in hindsight, I am glad they weren't. We were, again, entirely on our own, and had they decided that they wanted us to force to get to know them, we wouldn't have stood much of a chance, I believe.
The bus comes, and we separate from our fan club.

After a short journey, we get off at the foot of the long gentle slope rising above the valle dei templi, with the impressive temple ruins on top.

At the beginning of the path leading up the slope, a trailer kiosk is set up. We assume this is some sort of tourist information, or maybe we need to buy a ticket to access the temple area, and Brigitte asks the young man (not another Mr. BlueEyes, sadly!) what we need to do to see the ruins. It turns out that we do not need to pay, but he has maps and postcards on offer, and is also able to tell us when the bus will return.

Funnily enough, even though Brigitte speaks to him in Italian (and she is fluent, apart from her stuttering which is always there, in any language), he insists on replying in English - something I find quite amusing, but he probably is grateful for the chance of using his (not very impressive) skill; at this time of the year, we are the only tourists for miles around.
So off we go, to the ruins of the ancient temples.

I may have mentioned it before: I do have a thing for neglected, overgrown places with the former residents long gone, and that is what these ruins are.
The October sun lends a golden gleam to the ancient stones, and there is gorse growing everywhere between the columns, some of them still upright, giving an idea of the former grandness of the buildings, some others long fallen, their pieces seperate from each other.
Prickly pears line the dusty paths leading in and around the various sites; this was once a very important place of cult, large enough to hold thousands of worshippers and onlookers.
The bustling crowds of old are gone, the only noise is that of the crickets in the tall grey-green grass, and the only movement is that of small brown lizards flitting away as soon as our shadow falls across them.
What I remember is that there was no rubbish around, no signs of the 20th century visible other than Brigitte and myself.
We probably rest on one of the fallen pillars at some stage, having some water and a panino each, but I can't remember that.

Eventually, it is time to return to the kiosk where the bus was to pick us up, and we slowly walk down the hill, not speaking much.
The bus arrives, and we get on, being the only two passengers. There is another man on the bus apart from the driver, he checks our tickets and so we assume this is his job, and sit down somewhere half way down the aisle, Brigitte near the window and I next to her.
I recall exactly what I am wearing that day: a vanilla coloured straight cotton skirt, ending just above the knee, and a white t-shirt and espadrillos. I also remember how I feel something on my bare leg, and, still looking out of the window at Brigitte's side, assuming it is a fly, brush it off with my hand. A moment later, there is again something on my bare skin, and this time I look - realizing to my horror that it is the ticket controller's hand, lightly trailing his fingers up my leg!
I scream and hit at his hand, almost jumping out of my seat and on Brigitte's lap.
She has been looking out of the window, too, and had not noticed what was going on, and so angrily asks me what on earth is the matter?!
I shout that this guy has been touching me, and although he has by now perfectly well understood that I am absolutely NOT having it, Brigitte tells him in no uncertain terms to leave us well alone.
The man gives me a leering grin, gets up from his seat across the aisle from me and joins the driver in the front, talking to him and sharing raucous laughter.

I am scared now, because it has just dawned on me that we are on our own in this bus with the two men, on a lone road still some distance to the city, and if these two were to take a little detour, there would be nothing we could do. Nothing but scream, really.
But, for the moment, frightened like a rabbit, I have finished screaming, and just hope that there won't be any detours but the men decide we are not worth the effort.
Our huge sigh of relief when we recognize we are heading towards the central bus station must have been audible all the way to Porto Empedocle.
Without another word, we hastily get off the bus and join the crowd of people who by now have gathered to wait for the next bus back to where our dear host is most likely in the middle of preparing our dinner.

We choose not to tell Nunzia about this; she would never allow us out of the house without male protection again, convinced as she is anyway that all Sicilian men are crooks (her own words).

(Credits for the pictures go, as usual, to the kind people who allow me to find all this on the internet)

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